Maybe Eijanaika isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. That was one of the many competing theories I came up with after sitting through Shohei Imamura’s 1979 epic about Japan being transformed by Westernization in the latter half of the 19th century. Or maybe that’s not really what it’s about—maybe it’s just intended to be a picaresque series of adventures experienced by someone caught between Japan and the West in that turbulent period, and that we can draw out of it whatever interpretations we like. Or maybe it was intended to be something completely different, and in the decade or so that Imamura wrote and re-wrote the screenplay and tried to mount the production he lost sight of what was really supposed to be on the screen. What I saw was a deeply confused, meandering film that desperately needed a strong editorial hand to tighten it up and give it focus and clarity.
Let me back up a bit and describe the film itself, the better to demonstrate where the problems stem from. Eijanaika opens with Genji (Shigeru Izumiya) arriving rather unceremoniously in 19th-century Japan after having spent years abroad in the United States. He has learned English and understands all too well the congeries of forces that are threatening to come to Japan and remake it forever—the arms dealers, for instance, and he concludes that it might be best to deal directly with them now and get ahead of the game. But opportunities are few and far between, and he winds up drifting into crimes directed against a government that seems increasingly willing to collaborate with outsiders.
Most of his immediate problems are actually not political. His wife has, in his absence, found work as a stripper in a peep show—the details of which are as funny as they are painful, and bring to mind Imamura’s far superior movie The Pornographers. Genji at first tries to appeal to her to go back to the States with him, where they might have more opportunities available to them, but she ultimately refuses: she’d rather be thought of as a whore here at home than be a total stranger somewhere else, evidently. And there is more, a lot more, most of it revolving around the way Genji and his comrades use and are used by others.
Reviewing a movie like this is frustrating, since the many redeeming values of the film—its setting, its ideas, its lush photography—have been buried under a layer of needless ostentation and confusion. Whole segments of the movie seem to repeat themselves to no particular end. Characters appear and disappear without much regard to their stated importance. No firm hand seems to have been at the controls. On the surface, Eijanaika is full of action and happenstance, but on closer inspection it hardly seems to be about anything at all, since so many of its conceits negate each other or go off into space without touching ground.
These few clear threads eventually become buried in the movie’s murk of a plot, in which a great many things happen but we’re never quite completely clear why. One of the biggest problems seems to be Genji’s motives, which switch around almost at random. If the impression we’re supposed to get is that he’s simply a grasping opportunist, even that doesn’t completely work: he seems more confused and rudderless than cynical. For someone who’s supposed to be at the center of a broad-shouldered story, he’s terribly petty and unengaging. Imamura keeps everyone in the movie more or less at arm’s length anyway; he puts everyone in medium or long shots—as a way of making us feel like witnesses to history, I guess, but the end result is oddly disconnected.
Shigeru Izumiya, the actor who plays Genji, has a fascinating career of his own. He was originally a protest-folk-style singer in the Sixties (he contributed music to Sogo Ishii’s legendarily insane Crazy Thunder Road), but later appeared on TV and in the movies, typically as a heavy or a psycho yakuza / assassin type. He also directed one movie, a mind-blowing experimental science-fiction flick called Death Powder (not available yet, sadly) that has been favorably compared to Tetsuo: The Iron Man not just in its look and feel or in the creative way it makes use of a low budget but in its deliberately fractured storytelling.
Imamura himself is not an untalented man, either, but this movie obscures his best qualities. He directed several films I admired, some even despite their obvious flaws: I mentioned The Pornographers, but I also thought of Vengeance is Mine (probably his finest moment). By far the worst, or at least the most confusing, were The Eel—a narrative and logical mess of a film—and Warm Water under a Red Bridge, which had more ambition than it knew what to do with. Eijanaika is nowhere nearly as confused as either of those movies, but it suffers from the same lack of understanding of its own material. Perhaps Imamura was trying to compress his ideas about the madness of the times into a movie, but the end result is a movie that is merely chaotic instead of being about chaos.
What’s ironic is that not long ago I looked at an excellent movie that dealt at least in part with some of the same history of Japan and in a far better way: Red Lion. That film used it as partial backdrop for an immediate and engaging story and had Toshiro Mifune embodying a larger-than-life personality. He provided all the onscreen charisma and magnetism we needed to make us believe the most improbable of plots. Eijanaika has nobody of similar stature front-and-center, either as an actor or as a character, and so most of what happens and who it happens to come off as equally anonymous. A film this allegedly epic should not come off feeling this forgettable.
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